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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social, Emotional, and Character Development: The Heart of Student Learning

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Tim Brennan is the Founder of the DREAMER Institute for Connective Living. He is also a life-long public educator and has been pursuing a deeper understanding of the importance of social, emotional and character development (SECD) well before he was familiar with those terms. I believe his perspective adds important depth to our collective understanding of SECD and what it means to learn authentically and well.

Tim BrennanCredit: Tim Brennan

I interviewed him and the highlights are below, followed by contact information if you want to learn more about the institute and his work.


Edutopia: You have developed an inspirational message about seven sources of energy that people need to live a balanced and fulfilling life. The message seems relevant to teachers, administrators, and teens. Can you say a little bit about what you would want each of these three groups to know about your philosophy and approach?

Tim Brennan: Adults and children have a balancing system that gets us through the day in what many people call our "comfort zone." That balance comes from a series of interconnections among diet, rest, exercise, awareness, meditation, expression and renewal, what I call The DREAM+E=R Way. When children are approaching the process of learning, it can help teachers and administrators become aware that the physical hunger of a youngster who has not had breakfast may manifest itself as apathy or low aptitude. A child who tries to satisfy emotional hunger with food may become obese. Only when the basic balance system feels comfortable and nourished can educators lead students into new territory of higher learning.

To learn is to change on the basis of experience. Teens experience changes, all at once and of every kind, learning not just when they are sitting in the classroom, but during every waking moment. Only about ten percent of learning takes place at the conscious level. The important feelings that get attached to what is learned, that later create emotion and action in the learner, happen at the unconscious level. If life is out of balance, we humans often retreat to past mental programming. If we feel confident, we are more likely to move into new territory and to grow, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as well.

How did you develop your ideas?

During the 1960's as a high school English teacher, I found my students fascinated by Plato's "Parable of the Cave," from The Republic. They found useful the idea that we are prisoners of our own ideas and that we are free to move beyond our present level of knowledge whenever we choose, simply by becoming aware of it. I would ask my students, and, later, the teachers, administrators and board of education members in my DREAMER Institute workshops, to close their eyes and picture a tree. Then we would open our eyes and compare notes. It was revealing that given a seemingly simple, concrete image such as that of a tree, the variety of responses was amazingly different. That got me started on the path of finding out -- beyond whatever was directly in front of us -- how we come to believe and think as we do. And I realized how much educational leaders, in particular, must do to understand the perspective of the students and staff members in their charge.

Among all of your ideas, I found your points about rest, meditation, and expression to be most intriguing. Would you speak to each of these and provide some practical suggestions for educators and teens?

Rest, the feeling of safety in stillness, is the first prerequisite for achieving human balance. Our young men and women in the armed forces are given time for sleeping every day, no matter how close to the enemy action they may be. But to rest, they are removed from the front and sent somewhere safe for "R and R." Many American children, like cakes that should be allowed to bake slowly in a warm oven, instead get the heat turned up and the time cut back. On the outside, they may look finished, almost crusty. But inside, they have not had time to coalesce. Under stress they are likely to collapse. Teachers and administrators who make their schools and classrooms safe for everyone, who offer times of quiet reading or listening, who value the emotional release of recess in the schoolyard and productive conversations in the classroom; may find that, over time, regular periods of safety in stillness can lessen visits to the discipline office or even the child study team.

Meditation, often described by the many prominent scientists who practice it as "like coming home," can cleanse and refresh the mind. In the bewildering burst of information that is 21st-century teen life, students may feel as if they are on a ship with no captain, no rudder, just an endless stream of change and stress causing unending pitching and rolling. Schools that offer periods of meditation, even ten minutes a day, have seen great progress in the areas of discipline and school climate. Times of quiet reflection on what has been learned in a given class period, a day at school, or a given unit of study, serve a similar purpose. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Expression brings our inner selves to light. Learning what we value, what makes us feel important about the work we do as educators can help keep us on track and help us present our genuine selves to our students. What's more, role modeling is still the most powerful form of teaching on this planet. As Aristotle said, "The soul never thinks without a picture." Allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way is important to them (drama, music, art, writing, speech, video) helps us educators see what is on their minds and sheds light on the values underlying their thoughts. Students can do most of the talking in the classroom, to the benefit of all.


Tim's work reminds me that SECD cannot be disconnected from our physical well-being, in the broad way that DREAMER captures. For children to learn anything -- social-emotional skills as well as academic skills -- in ways that will renew them and become part of their everyday identity, they need the right balance of diet, rest, exercise, awareness, meditation/reflection, and opportunities for expression.

I hope it will broaden your view of how to understand children who are having difficulty and what it might take to help them, as well as what we need to build into our school climates normatively to support student learning.

You can email Tim here. His book, Life in the Balance: The DREAMER Way is available in print and electronic versions through all major book sellers.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Very sound advice. Stephen Covey talks about his four needs that I believe fundamentally incorporate your list. I'm glad to learn of this work and will be learning more about it.

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

My classroom observations/experiences of pure stillness time in the classroom matches what Tim has said, especially for the extremely high-energy kids (often medicated, need it or not). Extended calm and serenity has a delicious feel, transforms a classroom, almost to the point that kids don't want it to end - it is pure, comfortable safety. I experimented with different activities following extended stillness time and individual book talks seemed to work better than going into a whole class lesson, for example on math, or starting up group learning centers. Kids had a heighten sense of focus and were willing to listen to a single class member tell about his or her book. I can see how teachers would feel pressured to "cover everything" on the daily schedule and omit moments like these.

LearnMeProject's picture

Lip service is paid to these things--and I'm not suggest that this is that--but then when push comes to shove (and it always does) the conversation, the calendar, etc. turns to the standardized tests and character development goes on temporary hiatus. Kids get it--it's the tests that matter. The sad thing is that a valuing of character--not just talking talk but walking the walk--will in the long run can also lead to better performance on tests. http://learnmeproject.com/

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

Agree about the testing. I have ranted about it for years while running a PBL classroom. It take an enormous amount of time & energy on the teacher's part to play the testing role and still manage to supply creative, collaborative, innovative experiences for the kids. From the book "Educating Esme" (a first year teacher diary), Esme wonders why the teachers around her think they must do everything they're told to do. Good point. Teachers have to do the right things that work in class even while politicians and principals and superintendents are off the deep end with test results. The quiet time mentioned in the article is one of those things - it works and it could be explained to the principal as a technique for improving concentration for standardized tests (wink wink) - whatever works to please the boss and not be fired, I guess.

April Buckley's picture
April Buckley
4th Grade Elementary Teacher from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania

I found this very interesting. It gave me insights on the things I am doing every day in my classroom, as well as the things I need to focus on to improve student learning. Oftentimes as educators, we do get overwhelmed with the tests and daily demands of education. However, something as simple as time can make all the difference. One might argue that there is not enough time in the day to get everything accomplished. However, we need to find and make the time. My school is currently part of a grant where students are given healthy snacks weekly, as well as built in daily exercise. I also find the time each day to incorporate listening and reading centers as a way for the students to get a little R and R while meeting the daily objectives. I have the students reflect at the end of each day through writing. This quiet time of reflection produces some very meaningful and inspirational work. This helped me to realize, however, that I want to try to build more opportunities into my day for the students to be able to express themselves. Center time would be ideal for this (drama: performing plays on the current stories, music: writing and performing songs using the vocabulary and spelling words for the week, etc.)It is my goal to continue focusing on and enhancing these things within my classroom. Incorporating time for students to find rest and meditation, as well as opportunities for them to express their inner selves is essential! I'm glad I entered this blog. Great insights on improving student learning!

William Miller's picture

I love to give my students rest and relaxation as much as possible. There are so many things going on each and every day and they can become "bogged" down and stressed. I have found that giving students that few minutes even, to read silently, do a "free" write in their journal, or a read aloud can relax their mind and refresh them. My building principal is supportive of giving students the opportunity to engage in these restful activities and I have seen the benefit of providing them to my students. As Tim Brennan talks about, doing these things may cut back on the amount of disciplinary problems you see in your classroom. The less time you have to spend on disciplinary problems, the more you can spend on instruction, and the more successful your students will be.

morgfenst's picture

I feel that the concepts that Tim Brennan spoke of can help all teachers in their classrooms. I have found that when students have an imbalance somewhere in their life, it affects their performance. The idea that when a student is hungry it affects other areas in their life seems so simple, but at the same time, it is something a teacher could miss. Many educators are so focused on following lesson plans they might not realize the cause of the student's problems. I think that after reading this post I am going to try to take time each day for students to unwind through artwork or simply doing deep breaths. While it is important for students to have a balance in their life, it is equally important for teachers as well. When one comes into the classroom relaxed and ready for the day, it reflects on the way one approaches the students. Tim Brennan has shown me that when one has a balanced life, one is better equipped to not only teach students, but to reach out to them and help them find balance in their own lives.

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